The area that surrounds the Point Defiance Pagoda tries hard to be a Japanese garden. It has majestic conifers, colorful maples and a large concrete lantern.
But it falls far short of being an authentic Japanese garden.
An orange-red torii gate rises from the water instead of land, a cultural no-no in Japan. A shrine that should be accessible is marooned on an island. Rocks are made out of concrete, and the “lantern” is something few Japanese would recognize.
That’s why, after years of planning, Metro Parks Tacoma is about to embark on a complete redesign of the space.
“There’s been interest to redevelop this garden and bring it up to a more authentic style for many years,” said Doug Fraser, chief planning manager for Metro Parks.
On Thursday, Metro Parks will have an open house in the pagoda to discuss the garden, pedestrian and bicycle paths, parking and other elements surrounding the pagoda.
Metro Parks hopes to have a final design for the garden overhaul sometime this summer. It’s part of a new master plan that will see significant changes in the park over the next 20 years with major improvements around the pagoda over the next four years.
Point Defiance had a Japanese-inspired garden even before it had a pagoda, which was built in 1914 as a street car station and renovated after a 2011 fire. But the pagoda’s construction did intensify the Japanese-style design of the garden.
The garden took its present-day form in 1963 under the sponsorship of the Capitol District of Garden Clubs. The torii gate and shrine — gifts from Tacoma’s Japanese sister city, Kitakyushu — were relocated to the garden in 1982 after spending more than 20 years at the Washington State History Museum.
BLENDING JAPANESE AND NW DESIGN
For this iteration of the garden, Kitakyushu is providing much more.
A delegation from Tacoma visited Kitakyushu in 2012 to begin work on the redesign. Passage of the park district’s $198 million capital improvement bond two years later provided the money to complete the project. About $1 million of the bond proceeds are dedicated to the design phase of the project.
Japanese designers visited the park in 2014 and have developed a preliminary plan for the upper garden.
Gone will be the artificial rocks and the large concrete lantern. The pond will be enlarged and the level raised. Trees and other significant vegetation will be preserved or moved.
The designers, who also created a Japanese garden at Tacoma Community College in 2007, will use Japanese techniques to create a garden that also fits its environment.
“These designers want it to reflect the Northwest,” said Metro Parks historian Melissa McGinnis. “They don’t want to pretend that you are in Japan looking at this garden.”
Part of the designers’ plan calls for trimming trees to allow views of the water.
“They are very focused on the mountains, the Sound and Mount Rainier. How do you incorporate the views?” Fraser said.
The existing torii gate will be moved onto land. A bridge will connect to the shrine. Two waterfalls will feed the pond with water.
The lower garden, with its established trees, will be only lightly renovated.
GARDEN TO BECOME HUB FOR TRAILS
Parks officials also are considering how the garden fits into the rest of Point Defiance. Thursday’s meeting will focus partly on how pedestrian and automobile traffic will flow through and past it.
“How do you walk through it? How does it connect to the bridge? How do you get past the pagoda?” Fraser said. “How does it tie in to the pedestrian/bike pathway that we want to develop?”
That last item, a new bicycle and walking path, will run through the entire 760-acre park. Called the Loop Trail Project, it’s funded by a $3.25 million grant from the State Recreation and Conservation Office and $3.25 million of Metro Parks money.
The trail will use a combination of striping, barriers, pedestrian bridges, new trails and Pearl Street entrance improvements. It will allow walkers, runners and cyclists to be separated from or rise above vehicles. A trailhead will include parking and restrooms.
“Essentially it will create a separate pedestrian/bicycle pathway along the whole 5-mile loop. You no longer have to ride your bike or walk with the cars,” Fraser said.
With the garden’s and pagoda’s placement between the main road and bluff, it will most likely become a hub for the loop as well as a connecting point for a new path that will link the park to the Ruston Way waterfront walk.
Money must be spent for the loop trail by June 2019. Metro Parks expects to finish the Japanese garden by 2020.
A local contractor will build the framework for the garden, but Metro Parks officials hope the Kitakyushu gardeners can be present to oversee crucial aspects such as the selection and placement of stones.
“Those stones tell the story of a garden. The arrangements all have specific meanings. They have a very strict protocol for how they place stones,” Fraser said. “That kind of information we just couldn’t learn without studying for 50 years.”
He said of the designers: “They are garden masters.”
JAPANESE GARDEN OPEN HOUSE
What: Discussion about reconstruction of Point Defiance’s Japanese Garden.
When: 6-8 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Pagoda, Point Defiance Park, Tacoma.